At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell


In the Bec-da-Gaz bar, towards the end of 1932, philosopher Raymond Aron made a statement that would kickstart the development of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential philosophy: “if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it.” According to author Sarah Bakewell, Sartre was shocked upon the realisation of the significance of a philosophy addressing the question of what it is to be in the world. Aron was talking about a philosophy that was being developed in Germany at the time, mostly by leading thinker Edmund Husserl. He was describing a method that would deal directly with the world of things and (human) beings. Following his friend’s advice, Sartre spent a year in Berlin studying the phenomenologists which would provide a foundation for his own existentialist philosophy. From then on, Sartre would dedicate his life to thinking and writing, producing endless amounts of text on his philosophy of reality and experience, of love and freedom, of being, of waiters and apricot cocktails. Existentialism puts lived experience at its centre of its inquiry of human existence. Sartre’s philosophy was a vibrant mixture of nihilism, traditional ethical thought and a very active desire for political change. Existentialism seeks to answer fundamental questions of real-life dilemmas: how should we live? What does it mean to live authentically? How can we be free? The French existentialists made philosophy out of every aspect of their lives, from the minute details of the everyday to grander, more abstract issues. It was a philosophy that went hand in hand with the post-war liberation movements and shaped French culture of the twentieth century. Royalty of this era were Sartre himself and his lover, partner and intellectual companion Simone de Beauvoir, though they were inspired by and in turn inspired philosophers such as Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others.


Sarah Bakewell explores their lives and the development of their existentialist or phenomenological philosophies. She relates anecdotes, draws out the fascinating if complicated characters of this intellectual elite, sets a vivid scene of Parisian intellectual life and post-war struggles in Germany. The cast in this book - that ranges between philosophy, biography and history - is diverse and captivating. Bakewell offers a fresh and entertaining look into the complex minds and offers easy access to complicated concepts. The theoretical explanations are clear and succinct Her style of writing is delightful, it is with great humour and often a smirk that she present her geniuses that she clearly admires but constantly humanises all the same. Sarah Bakewell's work was an enthralling book to end the year with. Insightful and engaging, At the Existentialist Café is a great read for anyone interested in the philosophy and its thinkers or for those who would simply like to escape to the cafés of post-war Paris.


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